The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Gone today, here tomorrow

The Souled American story

by Camden Joy

Souled American I first came across the Illinois band Souled American in 1988, completely by accident. I'd arrived early at an NYC nightclub to get a good seat for some headliner, and Souled American were opening. I had never heard of them. They had a record out but it wasn't selling well; the label was about to go belly up.

It's hard to overestimate how indescribably different they sounded from other bands at the time. They played raw folk music that moved like reggae but sounded like early rock and roll. Blander versions of this same recipe (notably without the reggae) later brought acclaim to, among others, Uncle Tupelo and the Chickasaw Mud Puppies and gave rise to the alterna-country "No Depression" movement.

A decade later, I awoke with a start to realize that Souled American had been utterly forgotten. My friends and I set out to change this. In the balmy summer of 1997, we postered the streets of New York and Chicago with first-hand accounts, provocative anecdotes, tall tales, wistful remembrances, enigmatic maps, chronologies, and diatribes -- all of them in some way celebrating what we remembered of Souled American. We called our project "Fifty Posters About Souled American" even though, by the end, we had more than 65 posters. Later these posters were gathered together and published as a small book entitled Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry (Verse Chorus Verse Press).

The project (and subsequent book) had startling consequences. The members of Souled American emerged, speaking to the press for the first time in a decade. Rock journalists, having heard of our posters, wrote glowing reappraisals of the band's underground import. A San Francisco label decided to re-release Souled American's long-out-of-print CDs. The band even started playing live shows -- this week they're coming to the Boston area, where they haven't been since 1990.

In their time away, Souled American never stopped evolving. Their sound now jettisons rhythm for rich atmosphere. It's a fantastic sort of altered consciousness that they provoke while sitting and cradling instruments. To illustrate their elusive essence, let me offer some excerpts from our postering project.

Typical problem, example one

Yesterday, as I looked for their releases at a used-CD store, the nice guy behind the counter offered to help. He began by asking me what category of music Souled American made. An easy enough question. He waited several minutes for me to answer while I looked at him, dumbstruck. Dumfounded. Dum-dum. He grew alarmed. "Is it your heart?" he asked me at last. "Should I call a doctor?" I waved him off and eventually he walked away, which left me there still pondering. What category of music? Do words exist that can describe this stuff of theirs, how their songs are missing their crucial parts, the sleeves with too little information, how they invert the manners of techno via its dub predecessor "folk trance" as they break syntax, lyrically and musically? Lefty Frizzell via Pere Ubu? Lee Perry by way of Meat Puppets by way of Eno by way of Ry Cooder? The twine linking pop music to Souled American (I wanted to announce) is like what connects the monarch butterfly to the everyday housebat.

Our first encounter

. . . We [the Oswalds, my own band] were carrying instruments, having come straight from a rehearsal. What do I remember? I remember a tall slim guy with mirror shades playing an acoustic guitar with a pick-up through an amplifier -- it sounded like mine! This tall guy was singing from his heart, in a choked drawl. . . . It was truly unparalleled that all of us would be in immediate agreement on the beauty of another band's sound, but there it was. Our songwriter found something to like, the cradling care with which these fellows carried each composition, a certain inarguable resemblance to the disjointed images and antique feel of his favorite Dylan bootlegs; our bassist saw a way of steering the sound, punching through the song, that he'd perhaps never imagined; our guitarist grew enraptured with the tender embellishments that their electric-guitarist submitted for our consideration every few chord changes. I can't imagine why our drummer liked it, unless he looked forward to the day when he would be restricted to an occasional tom hit, a lazy bass kick, a drag of the stick across the cymbal, a percussive surrender. . . .

Diminishing returns

They have stapled their career to the ethos of the forlorn ex from one of their early songs, who pursues his gone love in complete secrecy: "I've often walked down your street. It's paved; no one knows." No one notices him in the song, of course, not just because a paved road carries no footprints but because his pursuit has so utterly wrecked his spirit as to desubstantiate him, expunge his corporeality. The band's pursuit of the musical marketplace has fared no better, turning them -- album by album -- into spooks and phantoms. Dropping more and more chord changes out of their songs, increasingly blurring their main instrumentation via intentional studio miscalibrations, they have now obscured their history, their sources, their very songs so completely that there is no reason people hearing them now would suspect they were once a reggae-covers band who drifted into playing uptempo country-western and bluegrass songs. They've left no footprints anywhere.

An open letter to my sweetheart

Something occurs to me as regards our spat the other night concerning Souled American. Perhaps I overreacted, I'm sorry. The chair, the watch, the mirror -- I promise to replace them, or to pay in full for their repair. When you acclaimed the Spice Girls and attributed my inability to appreciate them mainly to my devotion for integrity-laden market failures "like Souled American," it was all I could do not also to hurl the refrigerator out the window and down into your tulip garden! It's not that I am such a judge of integrity or that "authenticity" is all that terrifically crucial to me. Please understand, Sweetie. I simply like Souled American. I'd like them whether or not Notes Campfire sound-scanned more than 55,000 copies in its first week of domestic release, receiving praise in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Request, Details, Interview, Wired, Magnet, Bikini, Surface. Whether or not this occurred, I could care less, whether Wes Papadakis and Pete Elmazi and Fred Lesniewski and everyone adored them or not, I'd still like them. You know? It's not snobbishness or elitism. If a band like this were packing 13,000-plus capacity theaters on a lengthy cross-country tour, I'd say, "Great, good." But they're not. Not that I'd mind if they were. I don't particularly enjoy obscure acts, I wish I had gads of fellow enthusiasts to spread gossip among, I honestly wish my tastes ran with the majority. Do you remember the proverb "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers; and when elephants make love, the grass also suffers"? I would love it so much if just once in this elephant industry of music me and the bands I love were not the grass. I want Souled American to be elephants! But instead: no video ads, no BDS trend to speak of. They're not slated for Letterman, no featured singles picked up this week by AAA stations, no Number One callouts in key markets. They anticipate no full multi-format radio & TV shots, no spins whatsoever. In fact, we're mostly unsure what they look like now. They haven't toured America for many years. They don't have publicity pictures or even publicists or even just people picking up telephones shouting the band's name down the wire in an ecstatic fury. They don't have a record company. They don't have a drummer. They sound sad. I hear they broke up.

Fans wanted

"Chicago-area bnd with six releasd rcrdngs sks a following; infls W Nelson, B Eno, B Marley, Ltl Feat. Cpls OK. Serious inquiry only. No rcists, sxists. You: OTK/d, discreet, finan. secure, generous with papers, spiteful over posited drugging/abducting disappearance/replacement of the great middle-era Neil Young ("Ambulance Blues," "Revolution Blues," "Vampire Blues"), must be fond of genetic-transmogrification daydreams in which John Prine is molecularly crossed with John Fahey with Peter Tosh with Pere Ubu with the Grand Ole Opry . . . "

Reluctant history

They were booed off the stage in Boulder "while playing" -- according to one musician in attendance -- "brilliantly." They were panned in Los Angeles, accused of being dull, of "wearing Grateful Dead influences the same way nachos wear melted cheese." They went around the world in 1990 opening for Camper Van Beethoven. Europeans either loved or despised the opening act -- Germans adored Souled American, but the band were shouted down and hooted so loudly in Austria that David Lowery stormed on stage and ridiculed the audience. "They were always so genuine," Camper's David Immergluck enthused, "every night playing a different set. Songs would start differently, end differently. Everything constantly changed." Other cities showered them with money, prompting one concerned club owner to issue the warning "Coins Can Kill! If swallowed, coins can lodge in Souled American's stomach and cause ulcers, infections, and death!"

Tell me, what do they sing about?

Souled American seem to emphasize one theme above all else -- the loneliness in the cooling ashes of a relationship. A numb, almost passion-less yearning. The dissolving of self, "the loss" -- as Keith Richards described it -- "of that sense of incarnation." Seems to be about fragmentation caused by absence of some love, in what they sing and how they play. "You know, it doesn't sound very good," the daughter of America's most influential music critic informed me skeptically after I described Souled American's efforts. "Not at all. I mean, it doesn't sound good at all."

Souled American perform this Saturday, July 10, upstairs at the Middle East with Black Heart Procession. Call 864-EAST. Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry is available for $7.50 from Verse Chorus Press, Box 14806, Portland, Oregon 97293-0806.

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